Fierrabras D796 – Overture (1823); Symphony no.1 in D major D82 (1813); Symphony no.4 in C minor D417 ‘Tragic’ (1816)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner
Town Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 14 July 2022
Written by Richard Whitehouse
One of many projects left in abeyance by the pandemic, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Schubert cycle with its former principal guest conductor Edward Gardner duly continued this evening with a programme of that composer’s First and Fourth Symphonies.
Schubert may have been barely 16 when he essayed his First Symphony, but its confident if quirky assimilation of traits as derived from Haydn and Beethoven is more than a statement of intent – not least with an opening Allegro whose imposing introduction returns after the development to broaden the movement’s emotional scope. Gardner realized this unerringly, while drawing an incisive response from the CBSO in the first theme and winsome elegance in its successor as subsequently headed into a coda of bracing if not overly insistent finality.
For all its Mozartian gracefulness, the Andante yields an emotional ambivalence most notable in the plangent exchanges of woodwind and string towards its centre. These were enticingly conveyed, as was that contrast between rhythmic trenchancy in the Menuetto’s outer sections with its trio’s more affable demeanour. Precision of ensemble meant the final Allegro never risked seeming repetitious, Gardner steering it with assurance and not a little flexibility to a coda that emerged as never less than entertaining in its forceful reiterations of the home key.
Three years on, the Fourth Symphony confirms a greater formal and expressive breadth – not least in the first movement’s introductory Adagio whose underlying portentousness makes its contrast with an impulsive and often anxious Allegro more acute. Gardner and the CBSO had its measure, as they did the ensuing Andante in which Schubert’s woodwind writing is heard at its most felicitous. Any contrived distinction between the hymnic main theme and its more volatile alternate episodes was hardly in evidence as this movement drew to its easeful close.
For all its brevity, the Menuetto (a scherzo in all but name) can be rhythmically treacherous in its syncopation, but there was no lack of focus here or in the trio’s folk-like lyricism. Nor did the moto perpetuo underpinning the final Allegro run out of steam – Gardner sustaining a cumulative momentum across the exposition’s repeat then into an intensive development which brought an opening-out of mood through to those decisive closing chords. Its ‘tragic’ connotations may be tangential, but the teenager’s seriousness of purpose cannot be denied.
Opening the programme was a relatively rare revival of the overture to Fierrabras, the last of Schubert’s ill-fated attempts at grand opera – even though time and subsequent stagings have largely vindicated his efforts. Gardner drew palpable expectation from its introduction, and if what ensues seemed a little stolid rhythmically, the dramatic flair of the composer’s orchestral writing was not in doubt. A pity the even less often heard Overture in E minor (1819) did not open the second half, as its abstract drama would have prefaced the Fourth Symphony ideally.
In any case, this was a welcome addendum to the CBSO’s current season and not least for an opportunity to hear the orchestra playing at its former venue of Town Hall. Hopefully another such concert, featuring Schubert’s Great Symphony, can be scheduled sometime next year.